Winner of the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize
A beautiful, haunting novel inspired by the true life and loves of the famed Russian scientist, inventor and spy Lev Termen – creator of the theremin.
Us Conductors takes us from the glamour of Jazz Age New York to the gulags and science prisons of the Soviet Union. On a ship steaming its way from Manhattan back to Leningrad, Lev Termen writes a letter to his “one true love”, Clara Rockmore, telling her the story of his life. Imprisoned in his cabin, he recalls his early years as a scientist, inventing the theremin and other electric marvels, and the Kremlin’s dream that these inventions could be used to infiltrate capitalism itself. Instead, New York infiltrated Termen – he fell in love with the city’s dance clubs and speakeasies, with the students learning his strange instrument, and with Clara, a beautiful young violinist. Amid ghostly sonatas, kung-fu tussles, brushes with Chaplin and Rockefeller, a mission to Alcatraz, the novel builds to a crescendo: Termen’s spy games fall apart and he is forced to return home, where he’s soon consigned to a Siberian gulag. Only his wits can save him, but they will also plunge him even deeper toward the dark heart of Stalin’s Russia.
Us Conductors is a book of longing and electricity. Like Termen’s own life, it is steeped in beauty, wonder and looping heartbreak. How strong is unrequited love? What does it mean when it is the only thing keeping you alive? This sublime debut inhabits the idea of invention on every level, no more so than in its depiction of Termen’s endless feelings for Clara – against every realistic odd. For what else is love, but the greatest invention of all?
“Michaels’ book is based on the life of Lev Termen, the Russian-born inventor of the Theremin, the most ethereal of musical instruments. As the narrative shifts countries and climates, from the glittery brightness of New York in the 1920s to the leaden cold of the Soviet Union under Stalin, the grace of Michaels’s style makes these times and places seem entirely new. He succeeds at one of the hardest things a writer can do: he makes music seem to sing from the pages of a novel.”
—Giller Prize Jury Citation
Michaels's first novel glitters, threatens, and sometimes horrifies, but it lacks a center. The book is a fictionalized autobiography of Lev Sergeyvich Termen, the Russian scientist and inventor of the theremin, an eerie electronic musical instrument. Sent to America to demonstrate Soviet ingenuity and to make deals with Western investors, Lev enjoys the Prohibition-era high life and weathers the stock market crash of 1929, while reporting to his minders and spying as assigned. In a novel so deeply concerned with the Communism of Lenin and Stalin, it's notable that Lev's character has a near total absence of interest in questions of political economy and personal freedom. He progresses through many stages of use and abuse at the hands of his government, and then goes through a period of relatively benign imprisonment, surprised that a fellow inmate makes a point of refusing to volunteer for extra labor. Lev meets the love of his life in America, but he can't make it work with her and doesn't understand why. Perhaps his other marriages are part of the problem and why does he keep marrying, anyway? Michaels renders historical moments that are interesting in themselves but ultimately can't compensate for his opaque hero.